The Influenza Pandemic and Ely
As the War was drawing to a close a global pandemic of influenza hit; an airborne virus which affected every continent. It is thought that, in the UK, the virus was spread by soldiers returning home from the trenches in northern France. The troops travelled home by train and so the flu can be tracked spreading from the railway stations to the centre of the cities, then to the suburbs and out into the countryside. Young adults between 20 and 30 years old were particularly affected and the disease struck and progressed incredibly quickly in these cases, and those who were healthy at breakfast could be dead by the end of the day. Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death. The medical service was overwhelmed; there were no treatments for the flu and no antibiotics to treat the pneumonia. During the pandemic over 50 million people died worldwide and a quarter of the British population were affected. The death toll was 228,000 in Britain alone.
Looking at the records of Ely soldiers one can see the beginning of the pandemic in the trenches with Reginald Hall (at Hazebrouck), Geoffrey Lawrence (in Tanzania), George Royal (at Rouen) and James Thompson (near La Ferte Sous-Jouarre) all dying suddenly of either “influenza” or the attendant “pneumonia” and other complications. Herbert Vail actually appears to have caught the “Spanish Flu” when convalescing in England, possibly in Ely itself, in July of 1918. Similarly Walter Lawrence and Frank Baker died of the flu after the War while convalescing in hospital at Newark and Berkhampstead respectively.
The Ely Standard of 1st November 1918 informed the populace that “the flu” had reached Ely “although not yet so serious as other towns”. How accurate this statement was is difficult to determine as earlier, in mid-June, Prickwillow School had closed for a fortnight as both teachers and pupils were too ill to continue. By 8th November the paper began reporting a significant death toll across the district, with forty dying over three weeks in Soham alone.
In Ely precautions were put in place such as closing the Girls’ High School, and instructions were given on avoiding crowded venues and general cleanliness. Inhabitants were told to protect the sick and elderly from infection, and there was a stern warning that “pneumonia is especially fatal in immoderate drinkers”. The advice seemed of little help, as only one week later the Standard recorded that some 50% of the population of the Isle of Ely had had the flu in the last two weeks and that in some instances there had been two or three deaths per household. Ely’s four doctors were reported to be working at full stretch.
The flu was no short lived outbreak, and men returning home from the Front to their families over the next months lost parents, siblings, spouses and children as it raged on. The soldiers themselves were not exempt as two of the military graves in Ely Cemetery are of brothers John and William Garner who died within a fortnight of each other in February / March 1920 of influenza caught in Ely, having survived the War itself. One presumes their names are not included on the main Ely Memorial because of the date of their deaths, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission honoured them as recently returned soldiers who had both been injured for their country.